Journal of Child and Family Studies

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 237–246 | Cite as

Maltreated Children’s Social Understanding and Empathy: A Preliminary Exploration of Foster Carers’ Perspectives

Original Paper


Previous research suggests that parental abuse and neglect can have adverse effects on children’s peer relationships and self-perceptions. Emerging theoretical and empirical work suggests that children’s social understanding and empathy could play a key role as mediators of these effects, but we have little knowledge about the viability of such a model in explaining the everyday experiences of children in care. Thus, in order to gain an in-depth insight into the potentiality of this conceptual model, a focus group and detailed semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with a total of 10 foster carers. First, a thematic analysis revealed that problematic self-perceptions and peer relationships were indeed commonplace. Crucially, in line with our theoretical model, carers readily identified children’s difficulties with social understanding and empathy as relevant explanations for their socio-emotional problems. Carers reported using a variety of strategies to help children, but expressed a need for a clearer training package of practical strategies that could be used to encourage social understanding and empathy in children, with the aim of improving their social relationships.


Foster care Physical abuse Neglect Child development Qualitative research 



We are indebted to the foster carers and social workers who took part in the focus group and individual interviews, and to all those who helped in the recruitment of participants. Special thanks also go to the staff at the Local Authority’s Fostering and Adoption Team for their advice and support in conducting this study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of SussexBrightonEngland, UK

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